Literary commentary – The Spider’s Thread by Akutagawa Ryunosuke

I believe that the theme of the story is how desparation can compel a man to do certain acts of evil. I came to this conclusion through the events that had taken place in the climax of the plot where Kandata selfishly demanded the other sinners in hell to get off the delicate spider’s thread in fear of it breaking and therefore losing his chance of reaching paradise (which he did). Though the other possible themes here could have been are that “selfishness won’t get you anywhere” and the karmic rule “what goes around, comes around,” I don’t see its relevance if, for example, the spider’s thread were deemed unbreakable. It was mentioned that hundreds, even thousands were already climbing it. Also, the story said that it only broke when Kandata turned hostile and wanted the thread all to himself, assuming that by then the other sinners were already on the thread with him. If Kandata was aware of the thread being strong enough to hold him and thousands more, then would he have still commanded the others to get off it?

The concern upon the language of the story not only resides on the faithfulness of the translation of the story from Japanese to English, but also on the author’s emphasis on how hell is a truly terrible place. He used locations like “Mountain of Needles”, “River of Death”, and “Lake of Blood” to really paint a picture on the reader’s mind. I believe the author’s intent is to really encourage the reader to strive more into being a moral person and not end up in hell and experience the various torments Kandata and the other sinners had to endure.

The structure of the story was a division of three, unevenly long, chapters. The division is in line with the shift in setting because all the events that occurred in chapter one took place in paradise, then in hell in chapter two, and finally back to paradise in chapter three where the story ends. This technique is in partnership with the style used at which the story was told through the third person’s point of view without the intimate details of what goes on inside the characters’ mind. Referring to chapter three, first paragraph, last sentence, where the author wrote the phrase “he must have been,” suggests that the latter part of that sentence is just what Buddha was probably thinking. The shift in setting is for the reader to experience both Buddha and Kandata’s realm and role. I also noted how the events in the story took place from morning until noon only. Upon my interpretation, this indicates that it only takes a fraction of a day until a man commits an act of sin, no matter how big or small it is.

The story had allusions to several religions, namely Buddhism, Christianity, and even Hinduism. The referent of Buddhism is of course one of the two main characters: Buddha; Christianity through the setting used in the story: Heaven (paradise) and Hell; and Hinduism through the karmic nature of Kandata having a shot at paradise because he didn’t kill a spider while he was still alive. Most religions aim to guide the ordinary person to be the best he can be when it comes to morality. The referrence to all these religions suggest that the story’s goal is to strongly impose a lesson on morality.

While Kandata’s life was telescoped among all the other sinners, I believe that Buddha’ role in the story is not only to represent Buddhism, but also represent a group of people residing in paradise. This certain group was not mentioned in the story, so it’s a common assumption to readers that Buddha was alone in paradise, which I believe to be false. According to history, Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment while living. It is safe to say that he embodies goodness. But instead of being reincarnated, a Hindu belief, he was placed in paradise/heaven. This is not the belief deemed true in the real world, thus suggesting that those other mortals who supposedly reached enlightenmen or were good in the duration of their earthly lives go to heaven when they die in the story. Note that this is a Christian belief now mixed in. “Man is incapable of change, therefore mankind is doomed to reside in hell after death,” another theme that can be drawn from the story is, then, invalid.

The title of the story directs our attention towards the spider’s thread. The story is suggestive of irony. We all know that a spider uses its thread to make a web for capturing other insects for its food. It also uses its thread as a weapon to wrap and immobilize bigger insects that pose as threats. In contrast to its violent and deadly purpose, it was used as an instrument for Kandata to escape the torments of hell, giving it a positive twist. In addition, the spider mentioned in the story may have no significant importance except to inject this irony. Kandata was already characterised as a murdered, so this cancels out or contradicts with him sparing the life of a mere spider. The insect the author could have used was a silk worm, or any other insect that produces thread-like substancesm but the importance of irony is vital thus using a spider’s thread. Why s irony vital? Irony is relevant to this effect and the theme of the story.

The story ends in the third chapter where the setting is back in paradise with Buddha just witnessing the event that have occurred in hell. The tone of the ending suggests a feel of indifference. Paradise is not affected with the events that occur in hell (or even in earth, for that matter).

After reading the story the first time, I was left with mix emotions and the theme of how lack of compassion can lead to such terrible outcomes. But after re-reading and gaining a more sophisticated understanding of the story, I therefore changed my theme. It is safe to say that most people want security, both during their earthly and lives after, but it should not compromise our morality for it might be the very reason why we don’t achieve that security or (in Kandata’s situation) a paradise away from a life of torure and suffering. The process defeats the outcome. That’s the irony implied by the spider’s thread. Going back to the theme, if only Kandata didn’t compromise his morality by being selfish, he would have reached paradise instead of plunging back down to hell.

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